Undoubtedly many of you recognize today’s Gospel passage as the one that is read every year on Ash Wednesday. The natural reaction is: “We are not in Lent. Lent and Easter have come and gone. This is Ordinary Time. Why is the Church asking us to reflect on a Lenten theme at this time?
Let us consider the following analogy. As our community deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are 3 non-negotiables that are essential for physical health and well-being: physical distancing of 6 feet, hand sanitizing, staying home if you are sick. We are constantly reminded that we need to committed to these practices on a daily basis.
The point of this Gospel is to invite us to focus on 3 non-negotiables that are essential for spiritual health and well-being. Likewise, we need to be committed to these practices on a daily basis, not just for 40 days.
The 1st non-negotiable spiritual practice is prayer. What is prayer? St. Teresa of Avila reminds us that prayer is communication with God. It is an intimate sharing between friends. We are called to pray unceasingly. In other words, we are called to communicate with God at all times and in all circumstances. We are to share intimately everything about our lives– at any time during the day, in good times and in bad times, in joy and in sorrow, in health and in sickness.
Human communication involves 2 core activities: speaking and listening. When we spend time with God, we ought to spend the majority of the time listening rather than speaking. What God has to say to us is more important than what we say to him. As Psalm 95 proclaims: “Listen to the voice of the Lord”. Psalm 119 states: “Your word, Lord is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path”.
Prayer is not about changing God’s mind to give us what we want. Prayer is about changing ourselves. The ultimate purpose of prayer is to conform our minds, hearts and wills to the mind, heart and will of God in order become a better servant of God in this world.
The 2nd practice that is a non-negotiable for spiritual health and well-being is fasting. What is fasting? Fasting is willingly giving up food as a form of spiritual discipline. The physical hunger is meant to direct us toward God, who alone is capable of satisfying all hungers and filling all emptiness. The idea is that, in turning away from the physical, we are turning towards the spiritual.
Another perspective is that fasting can focus on aspects of our lives other than food. Fasting can be giving up, turning away from those attitudes, values and behaviors that are not pleasing to God and turning towards those attitudes, values and behaviours that are pleasing to God. For example, if I have discerned that I am overly critical of others, an appropriate fast for me would be to turn from making harsh judgments and to turn to making affirming and kind comments to others.
The Church teaches that there are only 2 days where mandatory fasting is required: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But this is the bare minimum. The Church also encourages abstinence from meat or some other suitable penance to be practiced every Friday. Perhaps, we can consider an appropriate form of fasting as our suitable penance for Fridays.
The 3rd practice that is a non-negotiable for spiritual health and well-being is almsgiving. What is almsgiving? This word literally means “relief of the poor”. We can be poor or lacking in many ways. It is true that we can experience poverty in the financial sense. But it is equally possible to experience psychological, emotional, moral or spiritual poverty.
“To give alms” does mean donating money to our favorite charity, but “to give alms” also means to respond in generous and compassionate service to those in any need. Almsgiving is any form of outreach to the vulnerable, the marginalized and the excluded.
The 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that when we appear before the Lord, we won’t be asked any questions on the catechism. We won’t be asked to explain any doctrine. Jesus will either say: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” or he will say, “I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink”. What we do to each other, we do to Jesus Christ. This is the basis of the Last Judgement. Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, a modern spiritual author, puts it this way: “We will all need a reference letter from the poor in order to get into heaven”.
Finally, it is important to reflect on the caution that Jesus gives us about these 3 spiritual practices. Our motivation for these actions is important. These are not opportunities to impress others or to make outward show. If that is the case, these actions will be a sham. When we pray or fast or give alms, we should do it in such a way that our actions will be directed entirely to God and not to our self-advertisement.
As our Eucharist continues, let us remember that the biggest mistake we can make is to think that we are alone in this task. We have the Holy Spirit who dwells inside us. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to help us to integrate these 3 essential practices into our daily living. Our spiritual health and well-being depend upon it!
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
June 17, 2020